Six lessons from world-leading cult brands

The Gathering 2020 offered insights from world-leading cult brands, ranging from the importance of putting customer experience first, to simplifying your brand message, to revisiting your foundational values.

As a brief guide to some of the themes from this three-day annual conference in Banff, Alberta, Canada, Globe Content Studio has compiled key lessons and knowledge transfers delivered from the stage.

How cult brands are made: The four Ds of difference

The perception of people who join cults is that they’re sad, lonely, gullible, victims of mind control, and blind followers of brilliant psychopathic leaders. “But the people who join cults are very similar to the people in this room,” said Douglas Atkins, former head of community at Airbnb and author of The Culting of Brands.

In fact, people who join cults are “often stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families.”

Atkins focused on the four ways cults, like the world’s most beloved brands, are able to create such devout followers.

The answer is paradoxical: People don’t join cults because they want to conform or disappear, but because they want to be more individual — more like their true selves. The most successful cults and brands take who you are and make you more so.

Cult brands such as Harley Davidson, Apple and Starbucks engage in the following tactics to create this sense of community and belonging. Atkins calls it the four Ds of difference and argues that these are the ways to successfully build a loyal and long-lasting community.

  1. Determine your franchise’s sense of difference. For brands to truly know who they are, they need to define what they aren’t and not try to please everyone.
  2. Declare your cult’s difference with doctrine and language. Once you’ve figured out your purpose, you need to actively declare it so that people recognize it and join.
  3. Demarcate your cult from the outside world. Logos, values, sounds. People can tell one brand from the other through visual and aural cues.
  4. Demonize the other. “Us versus them.” This kind of stance (think Apple versus Microsoft) creates solidarity in the community. The “other” becomes a threat and bands the followers together in opposition.
Douglas Atkins, author of The Culting of Brands, talks about why people join cults and why customers become fanatical about brands. (THE GATHERING)

Think differently about how you maintain and grow a brand

In his Q&A on stage, Chip Wilson talked about the unusual way he invested in brand building at Lululemon, the athletic apparel company he founded in 1998.

At most companies, the rule of thumb is to allocate 10 per cent of sales to maintaining and growing the brand. These costs are easy for finance departments to wrap their heads around and slot in the right place.

But at Lululemon, the amount was 2 per cent because brand costs were embedded in other departments. Since these costs were spread across the company in different departments rather than in one cost centre, it was easy for financial experts to overlook how Lululemon was investing in brand building.

For Wilson, essential brand costs included:

  • 30 per cent of retail leasing costs to locate stores in the right place (for example, near Starbucks, which targets the same customers as Lululemon) to drive brand awareness for e-commerce.
  • Developing reusable shopping bags that promoted lululemon’s social stance on health and longevity.
  • Hiring and paying highly educated salespeople to become Educators.
  • Investing in high-quality material so they last several years. Lululemon has patented 45 materials and has trademark registrations for several of its products, fabric names, and images. By doing so, the company differentiates itself as a brand and protects themselves from competitors.
  • Choosing to hire and train inexperienced executives who were athletes over experienced executives who were non-athletic.
  • Hiring executives six months before they started full-time and having them work part-time in the store. Brand value is created as the company evaluates the hire to ensure a cultural fit.
  • Stores designed for speed of shopping, not for fashion outfitting. This values Guests’ time and subconsciously attaches a value to the brand.
  • Transformation development and ongoing goal-setting training of employees.
Jane Hwang, Skittles’ global brand director at Mars Wrigley, says looking to the past is a worthwhile experience for a brand that has lost its way. ((THE GATHERING)

Look to the past and simplify your message

“Iconic brands are built on consistency over time,” said Jane Hwang, Skittles’ global brand director at Mars Wrigley. In her talk at The Gathering, she offered two big lessons on long-term brand building.

The first was on the importance of looking to the past and asking the right questions: ‘When we were at our best, what was happening at that time and what was the common thread?’ and equally important, ‘when it was going poorly, what was the problem?’

The second was about communicating effectively. Skittles’ unpredictable nature hinges on a distinctive brand of humour, but this in itself was becoming increasingly difficult to define. To solve the conundrum, Hwang and her team developed a framework to help everyone understand not what Skittles humour was, but what it wasn’t. Masterful in its simplicity, the solution was a large red square with the following descriptors flanking the four sides: too cute, culturally offensive, negative emotion, too gross.

No matter where you live, or what team you’re on, the message was clear. If the content of the creative veers out of bounds on either of these four dimensions, then it’s not Skittles humour, she said.

“That little box has been incredibly powerful,” said Hwang. “And it made sure people knew what we were talking about in a really simple way.”

It’s about making impressions, not buying them

“The ability to adopt a customer-centric business is the only way to compete,” said Chris Kneeland, CEO of Cult Collective and co-founder of The Gathering conference.

The reason why some brands continue to be relevant decade after decade is because they “fully commit to their customer cohorts.”

So, if the goal of a business is to service a customer, you have to ask yourself: how customer centric is your company? To win, you can’t just know your customers. You have to be obsessed with them, he said, pointing to Home Depot, which rebranded its headquarters to ‘Store Support Center;’ Porsche, which launched the Passport vehicle subscription service to its most devoted clients; or Fanatics, the online retailer of licensed sportswear, which partnered with American Express to create the jersey insurance program.

All of these customer-centric initiatives required marketers to think and behave differently. “They also required the kind of creative firepower that would get customers so lathered that they couldn’t help but talk about the brand.”

Chris Kneeland, CEO of Cult Collective and co-founder of The Gathering, extols the virtues of customer-centric companies. (THE GATHERING)

Back to the values you were built on

Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer at Restaurant Brands International — the holding company that includes Burger King, Popeye’s and Tim Horton’s in its portfolio – was blunt about the fact that Canada’s favourite coffee and doughnut chain had lost its way.

It’s about “stripping down the business and getting back on track,” he said. Part of the transformation involved an exploratory dive – interviews with friends of co-founder Ron Joyce, former employees and stakeholders – into the foundational values that Tim’s was built upon, and what made the company “amazing.”

The following is a list of those values:

  1. We are obsessed with freshness and quality.
  2. We make things simple for everyone.
  3. We give back to communities.
  4. We offer great value for money.
  5. We believe personal relationships matter.

Know what you stand for and flaunt it

Doritos acknowledged it had done a lot of soul-searching over the past year. With competitive pressures, disruptive technology and a new generation of customers heading its way, it was time to revisit base questions of brand identity: ‘What do we stand for?’

This most basic question propelled the famous triangle snack food to reinvent its brand purpose, said Rachel Ferdinando, senior vice-president of marketing at Frito-Lay North America. ‘How do we embrace disruption and take the brand into the future?’

In her presentation she distilled four key lessons she uncovered over the exploratory journey with her team:

  1. Know what you stand for. Relevance that transcends disruption. What’s your timeless truth? Bring your brand into the here and now.
  2. To be an icon, act like one. If we’re going to bring another level to the world in a disruptive way, how are you going to do that?
  3. Don’t be a cultural tourist. Create culture to enable your future. It’s easy to grab a cultural play, but we decided we were going to create value in culture and figure out what matters to fans and play a part.
  4. Sometimes you need to ignore the data. Trust your gut. Data is important, but it’s not everything, she said. Part of the company’s new brand purpose acknowledges the importance of emotion and instinct.
Leading brand luminaries converge at the Fairmont Banff Springs to honour each other’s achievements and share their secret marketing techniques with delegates. (ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES)


The Gathering is an event that always leaves me energized and inspired. For news media companies looking to build their brands, here are some takeaways:

To create an indelible brand, you’ve got to focus on creating a community and a sense of belonging. Don’t be afraid to be different, to declare your purpose, to demarcate yourself from others and to create solidarity among your customers.

Think differently about how you define your brand. It’s not just a line item on a financial statement. It’s embedded at every touchpoint of your business and every interaction with your customers.

When you’re feeling like you’ve lost your way as a brand, the past can serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration. It’s a matter of polishing off some of those gems that made you great and bringing them to the forefront.

The most beloved brands have one thing in common: they put customers first. If you want to succeed. It’s not about selling a great product or service, it’s about being obsessed with your customers.

The world moves at a dizzying speed and it’s easy to get caught up in every new trend. To stay grounded and prevent getting swept away in the tide of change, you should revisit the foundational values your business was built upon.

No brand is safe from disruption, so be sure you understand your timeless truth, be bold, create value in the world, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts, even in spite of the data.

Katherine Scarrow is the general manager of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *